THE TARGET is massive. The required run rate is soaring. And his team has just lost two key wickets. As Kedar Jadhav joins his captain, the game already seems like a lost cause. Not much is expected of him. He’s yet to make a name at this level after all.
No, we’re not at the Maharashtra Cricket Stadium (MCA) Stadium in Gahunje. We’re instead in a town called Nagar in Ahmednagar District. The year is 1997, and Jadhav’s team, Rainbow Cricket Club, is playing the final of a high-profile tennis-ball cricket tournament carrying a cash prize of Rs 51,000. The opposition has racked up a total of 100 in their quota of eight overs. In pursuit, Rainbow CC have lost their openers in the very first over. They need to get over 90 in 42 balls when a 12-year-old Jadhav walks up to his captain Nandan Thakur in the middle and says, “I think I can handle this.”
The floodlights are burning brightly and about a thousand spectators are lining the boundary rope. Thakur is stunned by the diminutive kid’s confidence. But as he recalls now, Jadhav would leave everyone at the ground spellbound.
Thakur was in the stands at the MCA Stadium on Sunday. And he couldn’t help but feel a sense of deja vu. He’d seen Jadhav pull off remarkable feats with the bat on many occasions from the time the two joined forces in Pune’s highly competitive tennis-ball circuit two decades ago. This was, however, his first ODI at home and India were 63/4 in pursuit of 351.
But as he saw Jadhav go about orchestrating his breathtaking assault on the English bowlers, Thakur suddenly reveals having had numerous flashbacks. It wasn’t just in the way he was leaving the English bowlers dumbfounded. Even some of his shots seemed all too reminiscent. The only difference being it was Virat Kohli and not he who was enjoying the knock from the other end.
“When you play tennis-ball cricket, your reflexes become extremely well trained. You never can be sure of how much a ball will bounce. So you have to adjust at the last moment. That’s why you’ll see Kedar play the cut and the pull so effectively. The grounds are odd-shaped and the fielders are always surrounding you on the off-side, which makes the inside-out shot the only option,” says Thakur.
The ultimate hit machine
For most, and this includes a majority of those who watched him score the fifth-fastest ODI century by an Indian, what Jadhav produced on Sunday left them wondering “where has he been so long?”. But as far as Thakur is concerned, it was a knock he’d come to expect from his old friend. For, that’s what Jadhav was renowned for in the cut-throat business of tennis-ball cricket. He was the ultimate hit-man, one you could bank on to win matches.“He would disappear for a day, win matches, win prize money and come back home. To play two or three games a day and win them for fun teaches you a lot about how to get the job done,” says former Maharashtra opener and national selector Surendra Bhave, who has been a mentor and guide for Jadhav since his U-19 days.
As Bhave reveals, ‘getting the job done’ has been the motto of Jadhav’s career. It doesn’t need to look pretty. It doesn’t need to be classical. It’s just a matter of being effective, a trait he mastered in that unforgiving world, playing in front of partisan crowds and with more than half a dozen replacements breathing down your neck whenever you walked out to bat.
“Kedar Jadhav back then and even now is not about technique. He’s about strategies. It’s always about how can I win a match?” adds Bhave. Despite being the hired gun for a number of teams, he remained loyal to Rainbow CC and Thakur. And he soon became a tennis-ball legend in Pune’s western suburb of Kothrud. With Jadhav in their mix, Rainbow raked up all the big trophies in the circuit, including the prestigious Ramanbaug Tournament, a 16-over-a-side competition that used to be held in Aundh with a big prize money on offer. He also got into the habit of touring for cricket matches from a young age as Thakur would enroll his team into various events even outside Pune, like the one in Nagar and stretching as far as Sindhudurg.
It was Thakur who was also captaining New Union Cricket Club in the Pune District Cricket Association league competitions that pulled the plug on Jadhav’s flourishing tennis-ball career. He had realised that he was made for bigger things. New Union won seven championships with Jadhav winning the man of the tournament in four of them. They also won the Maharshi Trophy on three occasions with the future India star ending up as the MVP twice.
The final call was taken following his maiden innings for the Maharashtra U-19 side against Kerala in January 2004. It was a knock witnessed by both Bhave and Thakur, but one that left them both awestruck and convinced that they were indeed witnessing a special talent.
Bhave was still captaining the senior state team in all domestic competitions and had just wandered over to the Nehru Stadium that afternoon to catch the junior team. “He made 195 of the most striking runs I’ve ever seen. He wasn’t only toying with the bowlers, he was cracking jokes, strutting down the pitch and smashing sixes. I had seen nobody bat like that in Maharashtra,” says Bhave, the astonishment still very evident in his voice. “After that knock, I told him no more tennis-ball cricket for you. There was no turning back from there,” Thakur chips in.
Satyajit Satbhai wasn’t around to see that Jadhav knock. The former Maharashtra wicketkeeper-turned-BCCI-certified match referee, though, insists he’d realised that his state was on the cusp of discovering a unique talent long before he showed up for his U-19 debut.
“We were playing a league match in Nashik. Kedar had reached at nine after having been on an incredibly uneasy taxi ride from Ratnagiri. He said, ‘let me get one hour’s sleep and I will come in to bat’. We lost two early wickets, so Kedar had to walk in early, and he smashed the most amazing century,” says Satbhai, who’s subsequently become one of Jadhav’s closest friends. On the field, Satbhai recalls his younger colleague always having an ingenious streak. But what stood out for him, and incidentally counts as the most striking feature for even Bhave and Thakur, is an indelible self-confidence.
“Because he didn’t get classical coaching growing up, he coached himself. He is not scared. He expresses himself through his game. It shows in his bowling too,” he says. Jadhav has always done things differently.
The Salman fixation
Despite the early flashes, Jadhav never quite managed to make the big step up, and those around him put down his ability to keep the positivity going to his close circle of friends and the Salman Khan fixation.
“For him, it’s about his boys. His wife is his childhood sweetheart. That’s his support system. If he wants to bat for two consecutive hours, all his friends will volunteer to give throw-downs through the day. He’ll catch every Salman Khan movie first-day, first-show with his wife but then once more with them the same afternoon,” says Satbhai.
When in town, Jadhav never skips his routine evening chai meeting with friends at their favourite haunt, Hotel Vaishali. Thakur reveals that Jadhav’s dream is to one day assemble the Rainbow CC XI again and play a tennis-ball match. “No effort for him to be the centre of attention. He has amazing dance moves. He’s the sort who would encourage everyone around him to be silly. He’ll keep asking his friends to recall some incident from years ago and then laugh hysterically like he’s hearing it for the first time,” says Satbhai.
Jadhav’s life seems to be on the cusp of taking a starry turn post his heroics in Pune on Sunday. But those around him expect him to remain his same unassuming self. As Thakur puts it, “Uska swabhav ekdum uske batting ki tarah hai. (his nature is just like his batting). Pura dil khol ke jeeta hai aur waise hi khelta hai.”